It is incumbent upon us to report the divergence in the Gospel stories surrounding Jesus’ triumphal entry. We do not simply ignore these things and pretend that they are not there, though we do note that differences in detail do not derail from the overall message of the accounts nor do the differences really present us with much cause for concern. We have already detailed Matthew’s account. Owing to the fact that Mark is believed to be foundational for Matthew and Luke’s account, we bear in mind that it is Matthew’s account that is divergent, rather than Mark’s. The divergences are accounted for by each author having slightly different goals that they want to achieve through the delivery of their accounts. Though each has the goal of setting forth the story of Jesus, each comes at it from a slightly different angle, which is perfectly understandable. Honestly, if each told the story in the same way, we would have no need for multiple Gospels, and we would lack the rich and manifold witness to Jesus provided to us by these evangelists, not to mention their diverse perspectives and portrayals of Jesus that serve to give us a more complete sense and picture of the one that is called Lord.
What are those divergences? For Mark, Jesus does head to the Temple upon the occasion of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. However, Mark does not record Him immediately engaging with the buyers, sellers, and money changers, nor making His Jeremiah-esque stand. In Mark’s telling, this takes place on the following day, which is also the day that Jesus speaks to the fig tree, while on His way to Jerusalem. However, in Mark’s presentation of that detail, and though the fig tree may indeed have immediately withered, the disciples do not comment on this withering until the following day, which is when Jesus offers up His commentary concerning the fig tree, the mountain, and the need to offer forgiveness. Here, we also add that rather than the withering of the fig tree being bracketed by Jesus’ actions in the Temple and a return to the Temple the following day in which He is challenged by the Temple authorities, it is Jesus’ dramatic actions in the Temple and pronouncement of judgment against it that is bracketed by the words spoken to the fig tree and the words spoken about and prompted by the withered fig tree. It is then that Mark writes “They came again to Jerusalem” (11:27a), with Jesus being confronted with “By what authority are you doing these things? Or who gave you the authority to do these things?” (11:28)
So in Mark, the order of events is the triumphal entry that is accompanied by a trip to the Temple where Jesus merely looks around at everything (11:11), a departure to Bethany for the night, words to the fig tree the following day, another trip to Jerusalem and the Temple where He dramatically acts and speaks, another departure from Jerusalem (presumably to Bethany again), the disciples noticing the withered fig tree to which Jesus had spoken the following morning on their way back to Jerusalem (thus prompting the previously mentioned commentary), where Jesus makes another trip to the Temple. By way of review and contrast, Matthew has Jesus triumphally entering Jerusalem, acting and speaking in the Temple, departing for Bethany, speaking to the fig tree which produces an immediate withering and subsequent commentary, and an entrance into Jerusalem and the Temple where He is challenged. Luke, by way of further contrast, has Jesus entering Jerusalem (for which He weeps while on His approach), and then speaking and acting in the Temple. He is a bit more ambiguous in His timeline, as following Jesus’ recitation from Jeremiah, he writes that “Jesus was teaching daily in the Temple courts. The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate Him, but they could not find a way to do it, for all the people hung on His words. Now one day, as Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts and proclaiming the gospel, the chief priests and experts in the law with the elders came up and said to Him, ‘Tell us: By what authority are you doing these things? Or who is it who gave you this authority?’” (19:47-20:2)
All that follows from the twenty-third verse of the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, when Jesus re-enters the Temple courts, until the first verse of the twenty-fourth chapter, when Jesus goes out of the Temple courts and walks away, occurs without a change of scenery. The same is true of Mark, as the setting does not change from the twenty-seventh verse of the eleventh chapter until the first verse of chapter thirteen. In Luke, the Temple is the scene of the narrative from the first verse of chapter twenty to verse thirty-seven of chapter twenty-one, which does not neatly change the setting, but simply breaks-up the narrative by informing the listener that “every day Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts, but at night He went and stayed on the Mount of Olives” (21:37). For Luke, though Jesus embarks on His triumphal entry from Bethany, He does not return there each evening. This helps to explain his omission of the story of the fig tree and its withering, which takes place in Matthew and Mark on the road from Bethany. Throughout this entire section of the narrative, we must see and hear Jesus in the Temple courts, which provides a dramatic backdrop for all of the words that He speaks.